There is an unprecedented global shift in gender relations taking place. Until our communities recognize and respond to this shift, the critical task of deconstructing the accepted rules of masculinity will remain undone, and the difficulty of finding suitable marriage partners will continue to frustrate us all.
Many young Muslims are experiencing some difficulty in finding a suitable partner for marriage, amidst a global shift in gender relations. This shift has been outlined with depth and considerable style by Hanna Rosin in her article, “The End of Men,” appearing in the July/August 2010 issue of The Atlantic. I strongly recommend you read it in its entirety, as it places a wider social frame on the issue. When Zeba Iqbal writes here on Altmuslimah that normalizing basic gender relations between Muslim men and women is critical, we must keep in mind that the norms of gender relations that have existed for centuries are being turned upside down for everyone, not just Muslims. As Rosin points out, for years women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But it may very well be that equality is not the end point. Rosin suggests that modern, post-industrial society may be simply better suited to women. Given the weight of her argument, and she marshals evidence from many points of view that support her case, it becomes increasingly clear that somewhere near the heart of the phenomenon of the difficulty in finding a suitable marriage partner is profound confusion over what it means to be a man.
Current social conditions have undercut the relevancy of traditional notions of masculinity; meanwhile, modern media’s messages and expectations about masculinity are a decidedly mixed bag. As Dr. Steven Stosny remarks in “Lions Without a Cause,” an article appearing Psychotherapy Networker’s May/June 2010 edition:
Through much of history, the idea that men and women should consistently engage in intimate conversation and validate each other’s emotional worlds would have been laughable. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it, previous generations widely assumed that men and women had different natures and couldn’t truly understand each other. The idea of intergender emotional talk independent of the need to protect didn’t emerge until the dissolution of the extended family, which began [in the West] in the middle of the 20th century.
This suggests to me that part of the problem with normalizing gender relations between Muslim women and men today may be that our current expectations are historically unprecedented. (For more from Coontz, check out this C-Span panel on “Men and Marriage” in which she participates.) The argument is not that Muslim women’s expectations for civil discourse with men are inappropriate; rather, it is that both genders are historically ill-prepared for the task. Dr. Stosny argues that the instinct to protect is a potent factor in men’s self-value. So what happens when women don’t need protection?
In Rosin’s “End of Men” article, she cites Mustafaa El-Scari, a teacher and social worker who runs discussion groups in Kansas City for men ordered there as an alternative to jail after failure to pay child support. When he meets with the group, they do an activity which challenges the men’s expectations and notions of masculinity. El-Scari asks, “Who’s doing what?” He writes on the blackboard: $85,000 “This is her salary.” Then: $12,000. “This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?” A murmur rises. “That’s right. She’s the man.” Even if this is an oversimplification and an overstatement of the situation many of our Muslim sisters find themselves in, the example highlights a key issue in our gender relations. The sheer competence, accomplishment, self-possession, and vitality of so many of our sisters seems to be intimidating to many Muslim men, as they see their most deeply held notions of their role invalidated by the forces of social change. Further complicating this issue is the fact that many women continue to buy into a narrative that conflates,(among other things) earnings with masculinity .
The difficulty faced by Zeba Iqbal and so many others is that she represents the vast gender role-reversal going on, which is threatening to men’s idea of what it means to be a man. The ill will and conflict Zeba notes between the genders is a reflection of the stress of this unprecedented change. Both Muslim women and men have to reconsider the many ways in which our expectations for gender role performance are unrealistic. I think women in these times have something of a head start on this because they tend to have examined their own roles more thoroughly than men. But unless our sisters can make some progress in deconstructing their notions of masculinity as well, they will continue to be frustrated. The cougar trope that started out as a joke about desperate older women, which has now gone mainstream, will inevitably surface among Muslims, in a kind of mockery of the relationship between our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and his beloved first wife Khadija, may Allah be pleased with her.
Meanwhile, the level of self-awareness and ability required for men to articulate the emotions stirred by conflicting cultural messages, many of which devalue them, continues to be rare indeed. It seems to me that development of this ability, and the discourse required for men to reframe their notion of masculinity, has yet to appear at any kind of significant social level. Yet absent this discourse, men are likely to continue to play out their unrecognized internal conflicts about their role in dysfunctional ways, in their relations with women, in the workplace, at the masjid, by themselves at home as they sit in front of the tube watching the NFL or UFC (that’s “Ultimate Fighting Championship,” ladies) – or even worse, at a training camp in a ‘stan somewhere.
Anas Coburn is a mental health clinician who serves as the managing director of Project Sakinah, an initiative of Dar al Islam to address domestic violence in the Muslim community.